The One Best Way Is a Trap
The Convivial Society: Vol. 4, No. 9
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. This installment takes up complementary themes to the last but from a different perspective and with the work of Jacques Ellul as a guide. The premise is straightforward: the pursuit of relentless optimization entails a crisis of mental health and human well-being.
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The 20th century French polymath, Jacques Ellul, wrote around 50 books, but he is best remembered for The Technological Society.1 And this fat book, stuffed with countless examples, basically conveys a single overarching idea: modern society is ordered by one master principle, which Ellul, in French, called la technique.
The standard definition of technique from Ellul goes like this: “Technique is the totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”
That may not be the most elegant or memorable formulation. Lately, I’ve been summing up Ellul’s technique by describing it as the relentless drive to optimize all human experience for efficiency.
But Ellul also helped us out with another more felicitous phrasing. He referred to technique as the search for the “one best way.”
So, for example, in The Technological Society Ellul wrote, “This ‘one best way’ becomes a dogma that applies to increasingly more aspects of life. This destroys choice. Nothing can compete with technique.”
There’s much that could be said about a society, or a life, ordered by the relentless drive to optimize everything. Just now I want to hone in on one particular consequence that I don’t think we’ve reckoned with adequately.
One under-appreciated consequence of believing there is such a thing as the “one best way” in every aspect of life is subsequently living with the unyielding pressure to discover it and the inevitable and perpetual frustration of failing to achieve it.
And not only frustration. It produces anxiety, fear, compulsiveness, resignation, and, ultimately, self-loathing. If there is “one best way,” how will I know it? If I have not found it, have I failed? And is it my fault?
As Ellul already knew in the 1950s, a society ordered by technique is necessarily inhospitable to the human person.
“The human being is ill at ease in this strange new environment,” Ellul observed, “and the tension demanded of him weighs heavily on his life and being.”
Ellul painted a bleak picture of the available coping strategies for the person: “He seeks to flee—and tumbles into the snare of dreams; he tries to comply—and falls into the life of organizations; he feels maladjusted—and becomes a hypochondriac.”
In an especially compelling phrase related specifically to modern warfare but, I think, more widely applicable, Ellul writes that the human person becomes “prey to a permanent panic that he is unable to translate into personal action.”
The demoralizing combination of anxiety and futility captured by Ellul’s formulation seems to describe much of the human condition as we’ve come to experience it.
So, in brief, here is the point I’m driving at. Perhaps it is simply the case that a society ordered by technique, by the relentless pursuit of optimization, by a compulsive search for the “one best way,” necessarily yields a mental health crisis by generating unattainable goals and unsustainable pressures to, quite literally, measure up.
As it turns out, Ellul believed that the technological society was, in fact, very savvy about anticipating this failure mode of the human component of the system. It was already deploying perhaps the most critical layer of techniques, what Ellul called human techniques. In short, these were techniques designed to assure the survival and suitable functioning of the human being in a milieu ordered by technique. They included, for example, pharmacological interventions and a regime of diversion and entertainment as well as an attempt to “humanize” the base layer of techniques.
What is striking from our vantage point is the degree to which even these compensatory techniques, those which ostensibly afforded some relief from the logic of technique, have themselves yielded to its imperatives. I think, for example, of how social media, in its form and content, became just another way to optimize the self and its relations. We were subjected to techniques designed to optimize for compulsive engagement and we ourselves internalized the logic in the way we learned to conduct ourselves online. And is there any more dispiriting word in the English tongue than “gamification.”
More troubling still is the way that digital technology more broadly has been deployed in the service of an ever-expanding regime of technique.
“Our interest here is the convergence on man of a plurality, not of techniques, but of systems or complexes of techniques,” Ellul explained. “The result is an operational totalitarianism; no longer is any part of man free and independent of these techniques.” And these disparate systems of techniques have the human person as their “point of convergence.”
However, in the 1950s, Ellul could still say that “the technical operations involved do not appear to fit well together, and only by means of a new technique of organization will it be possible to unite the different pieces into a whole.” But … “When this has finally been accomplished, however, human techniques will develop very fast. As yet unrecognized potentialities for influencing the individual will appear. At the moment such possibilities are only dimly discerned in the penumbra of totalitarian regimes still in their infancy.”
I would submit that digital technology, broadly speaking, has been the “new technique of organization” that has brought the different pieces together and enabled the very fast development of human techniques about which Ellul warned. Digital tools have made it possible to measure, quantify, analyze, and regiment ever larger swaths of human experience, and so often with the implicit promise of disclosing the “one best way.” As Ellul put it, a society ordered by technique “can only act on man by lessening him and putting him in the way of the quantitative.” And digital technologies excel at putting us in the way of the quantitative.
(Interestingly, given the way “AI” is often marketed, we might understand it as digital technology’s compensatory complement to the more relentless forms of technique it has enabled. It promises to humanize the techniques by relieving us of some of the most tedious forms of work, personalizing the coping mechanisms, or giving us new tools for “creativity,” but without ever questioning the logic of the system.)
But as Ellul made clear, finding the “one best way,” should we grant for argument’s sake that such a thing even exists, is just a way of eliminating our freedom of action. And the very tools that promise to disclose the “one best way” are like two-way mirrors, they allow us to see but also to be seen. They promise to empower us to optimize our lives for the sake of our self-chosen goals, while empowering those who would condition and optimize us for their profit.
So, once again I invite us to ask a simple question: Is there, in fact, “one best way” in every realm of experience? And even if there were, at what cost would we discover it? And what would we gain? Might it be that in the course of pursuing the “one best way,” we would lose our way in a more profound sense?
Ellul was not quite the pessimist he is often made out to be. He just believed that freedom required us to understand the depth of our conditioning. Only then would we be in the position to choose otherwise. He also wrote, as Phil Christman reminded us recently, that “fate operates when people give up.” But we must understand these two imperatives in light of one another. We must make sure that even our “not giving up” is not itself framed by technique and that it is not for the sake of technique, which will in turn require us to abide, or maybe even relish, the appearance of a certain folly in the conduct of our lives.
Ellul wrote about technology, of course, but technique is not reducible to technology. It drives the development and deployment of technology, to be sure, but also encompasses all aspects of society. It is a principle we end up internalizing simply by being a participant in modern society. A better title, it has been suggested, might have been “A Society of Efficient Techniques.” Samuel Matlack offers an excellent introduction to Ellul’s work here.